Key Takeaways from the HAPS4ESA Conference

12-14 Feb 2019

The tech sector is continually innovating to bring more efficient and cost-saving solutions to the market. For example, High Altitude Platform Stations (HAPS) can provide monitoring and telecommunications services at a lower cost than traditional satellites thanks to sharper imaging and reduced latency. HAPS are unmanned flying vehicles, including balloons, with the same functions of satellite systems. Operating in the stratosphere, they fly above the height of commercial aircraft but below that of space. Accordingly, on 12-14 February,  the 2019 HAPS4ESA Conference saw developers, scientists and institutional stakeholders discuss practical applications of this nascent technology.

HAPS for Monitoring

Unlike traditional satellites systems, the altitude of HAPS allows for sharper monitoring. Liduin Bos-Burgering of the Deltares Research Institute demonstrated the use of HAPS for water management and safety. By detecting extremely minor changes in the colour of dykes, they can expose leaks and saturation due to exposure to water. HAPS can also be used for air quality monitoring according to Dr. Frederik Tack of the Royal Belgian Institute for Space thanks to their proximity to cities.

While still in the experimental stage, the government of the Canary Islands is expected to invest heavily in HAPS in a collaborative project with dozens of local and international companies for coastline and volcanic activity management, according to Manuel Miranda, a government spokesperson. Thanks to long daylight hours, the lack of wind and cloud cover, and the availability of airspace, this region is ideal for HAPS from both a functionality and application-based point of view. If successful, HAPS could form a key part of the island’s infrastructure.

Additionally, Dr. Cesario Vincenzo of the Italian Aerospace Research Centre showed how ultra-high definition cameras mounted on HAPS could be used for surveillance purposes. Although we are not quite at the stage of being able to read car number plates, HAPS systems could feasibly be used to pick out the make and model of cars while monitoring an area of 50×30 km².

HAPS for Telecommunications

Fortunately for satellite operators, the increased use of HAPS won’t make traditional satellites obsolete. On the contrary, they can complement existing technology according to Antonio Abad of Hispasat. He suggested that HAPS services could be leveraged by a satellite operator to enhance its network by transmitting information quicker. In addition, satellite operators can use HAPS as a backup system in case of satellite failure.

HAPS for telecommunications purposes has long been talked about in theory, but some companies are one step ahead. Jean-Philippe Scherer of Airbus demonstrated the success of their AirNode HAPS trial in August 2018 to provide 4G and 5G services for the military.

HAPS and Regulation

As an emerging and innovative technology, the industry will face inevitable regulatory challenges. Nancy Graham of Graham Aerospace International outlined the relative lack of existing HAPS airspace regulations. She encouraged the collaboration of HAPS stakeholders to secure regulatory access to airspace for HAPS and face large civil aviation authorities. While the topic of frequency assignment did not receive much attention during the event, spectrum management will create additional market access obstacles that will require collaboration between HAPS operators.

Author: Douglas Johnson, Consultant, Technical Policy & Regulatory Engineering, Access Partnership